We spoke with Margot Perlmutter, Camp Director at Camp Tamakwa and author of Camp Food Matters. Camp Tamakwa is a co-ed residential summer camp located in beautiful Algonquin Park, Canada since 1936 (and where my kids spend their summers). We found out about the healthy food changes happening at camp, what healthy shifts any summer camp can easily make, and the most popular addition to meal time.
You are a camp director, so what propelled you to write a book called Camp Food Matters?
Well, it definitely wasn’t something I ever thought I would do, but when I started keeping track of all the food changes we were making at camp, I suddenly realized that each little change was really adding up and I wanted a fun way to share these exciting changes with everyone! I hope that as it is read, others might consider changes too. We all need to make better choices, but as camp directors, feeding so many campers and staff every day, we really do have the opportunity to make a difference short term and long term. (It’s a camp food revolution!)
The changes you are making at Camp Tamakwa are so positive. Are you making them because you’ve been asked by parents and campers, or because you want to?
To be honest, I think it started as something slightly self-serving; my son was about to become a camper and I started thinking about food from the perspective of a parent. I realized a lot of the foods he would be exposed to weren’t necessarily foods I would buy or serve in my own home. I wanted him to enjoy the great treats that come with being a camper, but why did they need to be loaded with poor quality ingredients? When you look into what is in your food, you realize that you can change things for the better while still having a love of what you are eating, and even indulging!
What food rules do you have at home?
A lot! My kids need to have an open mind. If they don’t think they’ll like something I buy or cook, they at least have to try it. It’s a great way to introduce them to new foods and food ideas. They’ve learned all about awesome and weird sounding foods like hemp hearts, chia seeds, goji berries, and acai bowls! I always encourage them to eat a rainbow of foods so they get all sorts of vitamins and minerals and we don’t eat/buy junk food. I love treats and have a sweet tooth but I go for good quality treats made with healthy ingredients. We don’t buy conventional chocolate bars and processed candy, and I don’t buy processed refined sugar cereals.
What lesson from your book do you want your campers to take home with them?
Healthier food CAN taste great!
Have the healthier changes you are implementing during the summer at camp been well-received by parents and campers?
For the most part, yes! The salad bar is the biggest hit for sure, everyone loves it, and a few of the newer snacks have been very popular – even more popular than the chocolate bars! Admittedly, some snacks have not been as well received, but everyone has learned to take part, that their opinion matters, and that I am to “blame” if something is not great tasting (but is healthy)! I’ve even received calls in the off-season from parents who wanted to share stories of their camper either starting to read labels and looking at the quality of their food, or even asking where they can buy some of our healthy snacks at home. For me, that’s a great win!
What has been the biggest hit in your salad bar?
Staff love the quinoa, and campers love a lot of the seeds, cranberries and other fun toppings. I am probably most proud when campers choose kale and/or spinach, and I love when I see a plate full of beans! I think people in general love making a plate of good food, but choosing what they want.
Is it more expensive to eat healthy?
We are definitely investing much more in food as a camp, but it definitely doesn’t have to be, although it does take a lot of time and effort. You have to want to make a change and spend time looking into healthier options. I research healthier options (it’s a really fun way to try different foods) and I often call companies directly to see what sort of pricing they are willing to offer. Many smaller companies are so excited to team up with us and love that we are trying to educate young kids on healthy eating that they offer us competitive pricing that is equal to or at least close enough to what we are currently spending! We also try to cut costs by eliminating a prepared food, and reinvesting in healthier options, even if slightly more. (as a parent of 3 kids at Tamakwa, I really appreciate the investment!)
What has been the most surprising result of the food changes you’ve brought to Tamakwa?
Starting a garden. Who knew campers would get so excited by putting mint leaves in their water bottles and trying a green bean?! We have been expanding our efforts and investment each year, and it’s amazing to see how our campers care about it!
Have campers ever been mad about your changes?
The removal of fruit loops created an uprising. I still get asked when they are coming back (but they are NOT)! One summer, an entire All Day Program was themed around my food changes, and I was even strapped to a chair in main camp to make a point and entertain the campers! Definitely memorable in many ways!
What was the easiest change you made that you think all summer camps should consider making?
Cutting back on sugar and pop. There is so much sugar offered during a typical day at camp, and if you just look at where it’s coming from, you can probably find an easy way to reduce it. For us, we removed sugar shakers from tables, replaced pop as a reward for cabin clean up winners, and cut our Tuck (aka candy) nights by 1/3. Just these three changes alone was enormous progress. (keep going!)
Can a Tuck Shop be healthy and make kids (looking for treats) happy?
It’s definitely a challenge, but we are making marked progress. I think campers have enjoyed many of the healthier snacks we’ve brought in, but the trick is that I don’t call it tuck! When I ask campers if they like a new snack, I tell them, “I know this isn’t tuck. I’m not asking if you like it BETTER than candy, I’m just asking if you like it, and would you eat it again if it was offered to you?”. I’m not a magician, I haven’t been able to convince most campers that seaweed or dried fruit is the same as conventional candy and chocolate that they are used to, BUT, I can convince them that they are yummy and fun to eat once in a while, and sometimes, they end up choosing the better treats on their own.
Favourite healthier item for tuck?
Matt’s Munchies & Roasted Seaweed with overwhelming enthusiasm from happy campers!
Do campers like zucchini in their chocolate muffins?
50/50. Everyone loved the vegan, chocolate zucchini muffins we bake….until I told them about the zucchini. Half thought it was awesome that they ate zucchini without knowing it, the other half suddenly changed their tune and thought they were disgusting (but deep down I know they liked them!).
Is Canoe Trip food a huge challenge, or easier to manage than in-camp meals?
We don’t offer freeze dried trip food like we did way back when, so most canoe trip food is the same food we serve in the dining hall. We’ve had an amazing award winning chef, Jordan Wagman, come in and teach our canoe trippers how to cook chef quality food on a trip in the past. We feel that cooking on an open fire is just as easy, and even yummier, than cooking in a kitchen, and when cooking for small groups, you can be even more creative, so we make sure to have more ingredients available for trip. Our campers generally rave about their trip meals!
What is the biggest barrier to you feeding everyone organic, homemade food at every meal?
There is no barrier, except the fact that it’s a long process – we have a lot to learn. It’s not easy just feeding hundreds of people many times every day. We have a lot of allergies to accommodate, and many dietary requirements to take into consideration. We want to have parents’ confidence in our efforts to serve healthier food, and also take the responsibility of keeping their kids safe and well nourished all summer very seriously. So far we are breaking down the barriers, bit by bit. We have healthy homemade options at every meal but not necessarily EVERY component of the meal. We have many GMO-free and organic ingredients, and items, but certainly not everything – yet. We make most of our food from scratch, but our chef and his kitchen staff work almost around the clock already, so we are working together to deal with the changes. For example, we do almost all of our own baking every day, but a few bread items are easier to buy (sliced bread for grilled cheese for example). Our solution: we teamed up with Toronto’s own Sweets from the Earth Bakery to replace our processed, store-bought, white bread with their great bread baked with clean ingredients in an allergen-free facility (and no preservatives or anything refined!).
You are a leader in so many ways, taking charge of reforming camp food. Is this inspiring or a heavy weight to manage?
Definitely inspiring! If the changes I am making as a camp director at Tamakwa can somehow influence and inspire others, that is a great thing!